Mount Everest—The Best Writing and Pictures from Seventy Years of Endeavour. Edited by Peter Gillman with a forward by Sir Edmund Hillary. Little Brown & Co. Boston, 1993. $35.
What has been prominently missing in the profuse literature of the history of attempts to climb Everest is a compendium of the essence of these climbs, many told in the words of those who made them. With the publication of Mount Everest—70 Years, Peter Gillman has remedied this omission in a manner grandly befitting the subject. In a coffee-table format book of breath-taking graphic beauty, he has excerpted the climbers’ own stories with an editorial focus on the human side of this epic history of three generations of climbers.
Most histories of Everest are third-person interpretations. What gives Gillman’s work its distinction is that it is comprised almost entirely of firsthand accounts. These include a startling kaleidoscope of raw sentiments—sentiments that are desperate, exultant, grief-stricken, eccentric, oft cantankerous or crude, and reflect the momentary moods and personalities of climbers under great stress. Gillman places unobtrusive editorial observations in captions of photographs that have rarely been better reproduced, or in boxes separated from the climbers’ own words.
Mal Duff’s voice rings hard and true with his description of life on the mountain: “We were numb. Not cold numb, although that was there at times, just battered numb; numb from eight weeks of strain; from scything wind cutting at the flesh; from pirouetting columns of spindrift driving and dancing around us; from weighty effort and load carrying; from eating and drinking and living high on the northeast ridge of Everest.”
What a contrast to the serene prose of Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to summit Everest: “At nine in the evening on top of Mount Everest the sun can be seen setting over an awesome curving horizon. I am sure it was beautiful but to us it meant something very different. We took our masks off and kneeled down, succumbing to wind and fatigue. We were aware we had made it, but there was nothing more. The radio was silent, long forgotten; there was nothing anyone could do for us now.”
Mount Everest—70 Years is more than a compilation of known material. With invaluable help from mountaineering historian Audrey Salkeld, Gillman has managed to sift the ashes and discover new material to surprise even the most knowledgeable Everest hand. A previously unpublished photograph of George Mallory shows him about to ford a river en route to Everest, wearing nothing but a hat, a rucksack and an arch smile.
There are so many treasures in this book: Kurt Diemberger’s astonishing photograph showing the snow-fluted Kangshung Face scaling steeply up to two climbers standing on the tiny summit cornice; a shot of Australian climbers nearly lost to view on the dour immensity of the North Face; a full-color high definition aerial photograph looking straight down at the summit depicts the jagged terrain as no map can.
Despite the book’s keen attention to historical detail, it is odd to find missing one of Everest’s revived mysteries—Japanese climbing leader Ryoten Hase- gawa’s report of being approached by Chinese porter Wang Hung-bao in 1979 describing his discovery of the body of “an English dead” at a location that can only be that of Mallory or Irvine. A single second-hand account might leave room for doubt, but this sensational report was then confirmed to me by CMA official Zhang Jun Yan, who was Wang’s tentmate at 8100 meters on Everest at the time of the discovery.
Although most of the important bases are touched, it is from a decidedly English viewpoint. Maurice Wilson, the brilliant and hare-brained Cornishman who died in 1934 below the North Col trying spiritually to transport his body to the summit, is given loving coverage. (His bones turn up routinely near C-3. When will they be properly interred?) Yet American Woodrow Wilson Sayre’s equally illegal, and much bolder four-man oxygenless climb of the same route to 4000 feet higher in 1962 is nowhere mentioned. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, whose tragic failed attempt placed them prominently in the British pantheon of Everest heroes, receive their own memorial chapter written by Tasker’s friend, Maria Coffey.
The back-of-the-book compilations of Everest events will delight the left brain-sided. Sherpa Ang Rita’s seven ascents are described, achieved from 1983 to 1992. The 485 known ascents are tabulated by the 428 climbers making them (through 1992), along with their nationality, date, expedition, and leader. The 115 deaths are noted by date, location and likely cause; fifty-one ascents without oxygen are listed, and 16 women summiters: The seven progressively older men are ranked (now 55 years old) and the youngest (17 years old). Statisticians will have a field day.
Mount Everest—70 Years has spent many months on our coffee table. Each time I pick it up to place it in the bookshelf, I find myself dipping in to reread a selection. Soon I am engrossed once again. At this rate, it will be many months before it finds its place on the top shelf of my most cherished mountaineering books.